Big 12 pitchers make conference elite

We know the Big 12 will have a new look when next season begins. The next four months will determine whether the league has a new title when this season ends:

Best softball conference in the country.

J.P. Wilson/Icon SMI

Missouri's Chelsea Thomas led the nation with a 0.95 ERA in 2011.

The Big 12 itself isn't going anywhere, much as that seemed a distinct possibility at points during another swirl of conference realignment over the summer. But at least in the case of softball, the conference faces a challenging future regardless of retaining its name. Already gone is Nebraska, the six-time World Series participant ready to make its Big Ten debut with what looks like its best team in years. Gone after this season are Missouri and Texas A&M, the former a Women's College World Series participant the past three seasons and the latter the only school outside the Pac-12 with more than one national championship in softball.

In their places are TCU and West Virginia -- decent football programs, to be sure, but schools that don't field varsity softball programs.

It will be difficult for a seven-team conference (existing member Kansas State does not compete in softball) to keep pace with the Pac-12, winner of 23 NCAA championships and the past six in a row, and the SEC, set to add Missouri and Texas A&M to a conference lineup that produced 10 World Series participants in the past four seasons and is long overdue for a first championship.

But a numbers game may allow the Big 12 to knock both the Pac-12 and the SEC from atop the sport, if only for this moment. No conference in the country can match what the Big 12 has in the pitching circle.

Four Big 12 aces ranked among the Top 25 in the nation in ERA last season: Missouri's Chelsea Thomas, Baylor's Whitney Canion, Texas' Blaire Luna and Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts. All four return this season.

Four Big 12 teams made it to the Women's College World Series last season. All four aces for those teams return: Thomas, Canion, Ricketts and Oklahoma State's Kat Espinosa.

Only one team held a seventh-inning lead against eventual national champion Arizona State in the postseason. Texas A&M ace Mel Dumezich, who helped her team to that 2-1 lead in a super regional, is back for more. All Dumezich did as a sophomore last season was win 30 games and strike out 262 batters in 247.1 innings. Only in the Big 12 does that level of success qualify someone to be the overlooked sleeper.

"They've been able to bring in some good pitchers," Arizona coach Mike Candrea said of the Big 12. "And let's face it, that's really the balancing factor in our game. If you have pitchers that can match someone pitch for pitch and out for out, you've got a chance to beat anyone. Without that, you don't. I don't care how good your athletes are."

That Canion, Ricketts and Thomas are as good as any college pitcher in the nation is best supported by the fact that the three pitch for the nation. Along with former Michigan ace Jordan Taylor, they took over the circle for the United States national team when stars such as Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott elected to focus on strengthening National Pro Fastpitch rather than continue with the national program. This past summer, the Big 12 trio helped the United States win the Pan-Am Games (Ricketts went 4-0, including a win in the gold-medal game) and the World Cup of Softball (with Ricketts stranding the tying Japanese runners on base for the save).

Thomas is the only right-hander among the three, but in just about every other respect, including the power of her pitches and her competitiveness, she fits her coach's description of the other two.

"The obvious is that first and foremost they throw gas," Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said of Canion and Ricketts. "Both those kids are 70 miles per hour-plus, left-handed. Those are two very dangerous combinations right there to bat against. They both have a very competitive nature about them, they don't like to lose, and they both have good stuff. Any time you find a pitcher with a lot of velocity and a lot of courage on the mound, a good makeup, that's a cocktail for success, to say the least. I don't think there's one better pitcher in the country than any of those three."

J.P. Wilson/Icon SMI

Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts was 29-15 last season with a 1.48 ERA.

Put two of the three on the field together in different uniforms, and it's best to plan on at least three hours of softball. When Missouri and Oklahoma met in the regular season, Thomas got the best of Ricketts in a 1-0, 11-inning duel in which the two aces combined to strike out 30 batters and throw 328 pitches. Thomas and Canion topped that in the World Series, with Canion throwing a two-hitter and coming out on top by the same 1-0 score in 13 innings despite 19 strikeouts and 192 pitches from Thomas in a losing cause.

The dwindling number of Big 12 teams notwithstanding, the embarrassment of riches in the circle offers hope for the future of the remaining programs. Of the six top-tier pitchers in the conference, only Ricketts, a Californian, is an import from the traditional softball hotbeds of California and Arizona. Thomas is from Iowa, Dumezich from Indiana, and Canion, Espinosa and Luna are all from Texas. While still largely untapped by the powers that be in the SEC and Pac-12, Texas and other current Big 12 territory grow deeper and deeper in talent with each passing year. There may be enough to go around.

"It's going to be hard to replace those teams," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of Nebraska, Missouri and Texas A&M. "I don't know that we can. But I do know we have strength in Baylor and Texas and [Oklahoma State] and Texas Tech, who is definitely coming on strong. Iowa State is always steady, Kansas has a new coach who is fired up about moving her team in the right direction. There's a lot of good in the Big 12, so I'm not scared of [a seven-team league]. I also know, though, that with not bringing in teams to replace those two, that I've got to continue to play a very tough schedule. Right there, losing Missouri and Texas A&M took six games out of schedule that would be competing against a ranked program."

Until then, the Big 12 gets one more run, one more chance to add a second national championship to the one Oklahoma won in 2000. (Texas A&M's titles in 1983 and 1987 came before the conference's birth.)

One more chance to claim the title of the best conference in the land.

"It's just a conference that is so deep, so talented," Texas A&M coach Jo Evans said. "And the pitching, I don't think that you can find another conference in the country that has the kind of pitching that we do."

No matter how much the landscape changes, pitching is still the name of the game. Some things never change.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter @grahamhays.

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